How to Talk About Women in Ministry and Why
Talking about women as leaders matters to the memories of those who paved the way, to women who seek to lead today, and to future generations.
I am a fourth-generation Assemblies of God adherent. My husband and I are raising a fifth generation. It is a badge of honor that I wear proudly, both in the context of the church we are a part of and in the work I do in the wider world of evangelical Christian higher education.
My great-grandparents, Scandinavian immigrants, came to Christ through the ministry work of Blanche Britton, the Pentecostal sodbuster who planted 25 churches in the state of North Dakota, including one in my hometown of Crosby. People had told her not to try planting in Crosby because it was a den of iniquity and not worth the time.
At one point, those who opposed the work of Britton and others burned a revival tent the ministry team had set up on Main Street. Britton persisted, ministering out of the local Masonic temple until the fledgling congregation could construct a building.
Today, where that tent burned sits a church that has existed for more than a century — the only Pentecostal church within a 60-mile radius on the upper plains. It was in that church that I met Jesus as my Lord and Savior, but it is also the place where God grew my faith and revealed His calling for me. Britton’s picture hung on the back wall for several years during my childhood.
While Britton remains the only woman pastor in the church’s history, her ministry gave birth to the call of G. Raymond Carlson and his wife, Mae. (G. Raymond Carlson served as general superintendent of the Assemblies of God from 198693.) Britton’s ministry also changed the trajectories of countless others, including many members of the Edert and Olena Anderson family, my great-grandparents.
We never talked specifically about women as ministers in the small church in Crosby. We simply learned that we should all seek the call of God and the empowerment of the Spirit, as people created in His image and under the mandate of the Great Commission.
At Bible camp and youth conventions, we waited at the altars, sometimes for hours, to discern God’s calling to ministry. No one ever discouraged me from seeking that call. No one ever suggested to me that God doesn’t call women. There was just an assumption that, as a woman, I had as much opportunity for that calling as my brothers and my male cousins and friends.
It was not until I started college — at an Assemblies of God university — that I encountered language suggesting women shouldn’t serve as pastors or church leaders. The university did not teach these ideas, but some of my fellow students had grown up with this belief and knew how to articulate it. I had little in the way of theological justification or scriptural understanding to refute them, so I determined to study our theology and the Scriptures, and to seek God anew.
I may not have received a personal call to pastor, but I had family and friends who had, both men and women.
God called me to the work of rhetorical study. Much of my work has focused on gender and ministry — not just the ways we think about women in ministry but also how we talk about them. The words we use impact not just women, but also the Church and its mission.
For the last 15 years, I have researched the theological development of our unique position in the Assemblies of God regarding women’s leadership. I have pored over countless documents and historical accounts. The result was a book I wrote, God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Pentecostal Tradition (published in 2018).
There are other evangelical denominations that allow for women to pastor and serve as ministers, but our position goes beyond that. Ours is all-encompassing in terms of ministry roles, and the obligation of women to seek the call of God to ministry. It is, as former General Superintendent George O. Wood has stated, as distinctive as our doctrine on the Holy Spirit.
Since the mid-1930s, this doctrine has been enshrined not just as a position paper, but as a legally binding mandate in our bylaws:
So, given this very direct and solid statement on the affirmation of women as ministers, why are we still talking about the role of women in ministry in the Assemblies of God? Why is there still debate in some places within our Fellowship? And if this is a distinctive that identifies the Assemblies of God like our beliefs on the Person and the work of the Holy Spirit, why is there not more overt teaching and empowerment of women as leaders?
I believe the answer lies in our rhetoric, or how we talk about women, ministry and leadership. Our language influences both our beliefs and our actions. How we talk about our doctrines has a direct impact on those in our pews, our district and national meetings, and our universities.
Mae Eleanor Frey, the woman who spoke the words that inspired the title of my book, took to the floor of the Southern California District Council nearly 90 years ago, asking why the “woman question” was coming up again. Women then made up around 25 percent of our credential holders; today, the share is roughly the same.
The intention of this article is not to advocate for just an increase in the number of credential holders. Sheer numbers are not an indication of healthy affirmation. I hope to challenge readers to consider that our words are impactful, and we, as individuals, bring meaning to those words.
How we talk about women as leaders in the Assemblies of God matters. It matters to the memories of those who paved the way. It matters to those women who seek to lead today. And it matters to future generations. It matters to young girls like my daughter, who, at 5 years old, expressed a clear call to ministry and missions that I want to be sure we cultivate and nurture.
Like Mae Eleanor Frey, I want the next generation to have no need to take up “the woman question” because women of their generation are leading and thriving in the Assemblies of God.
The Power of Rhetoric
What does rhetoric have to do with it? When we think about rhetoric, we often think of bombastic talk, or, worse yet, ideas wrapped in colorful language that manipulates. Historically, however, rhetoric has been about persuading others through arguments grounded in logical (logos), emotional (pathos), and credible evidence (ethos).
We could define rhetoric as the human use of words to form attitudes or actions in other humans. In other words, rhetorical action is one person trying to get another person to behave, think or feel differently. Our interests and perceived interests join people to one another. This is how we identify with one another through language.
When the words we speak reflect our attitudes and beliefs, it reinforces the acceptance of certain ideas, people and institutions and the rejection of others. Those with whom we communicate then have the opportunity to agree or disagree. Through this process, we are constantly seeking to bridge the gap between one another through identification to shape attitudes and beliefs and then adopt similar language that connects us to those who shape us and those we seek to shape.
As pastors and church leaders, we should consider the language we use to talk about who we are and the roles we fill.
God created us in His image and designed us for relationship — with Him and with one another. Language is the primary means He gave us to engage in relationship, and also to influence one another.
We believe in the power of language in many aspects of our faith — so much, in fact, that we take for granted that preaching, teaching and prayer are rhetoric. How we talk about things matters. As leaders (both ministers and lay leaders), how we talk about what we claim to believe has eternal implications.
So how can we, as leaders in the Assemblies of God, talk more effectively about women’s leadership and, in turn, shape and form a holistic understanding of our beliefs, attitudes and actions regarding the role of women in the Assemblies of God?
Formulating and shaping belief comes through both study and teaching. While I understand that there are differing views on the theology of women’s leadership in the Church, there is no ambiguity in the position of the Assemblies of God.
If you are unsure of what you believe and find it difficult to teach on the subject, I challenge you to read and study the history of our position and the theological basis for its adherence. Study the Scriptures, but also the works of Pentecostal theologians and historians.
Study the stories of women who were part of the Fellowship from the beginning — women like Rachel Sizelove, Amanda Benedict, Hattie Hammond and Alice Reynolds Flower. But also study the ways in which the Assemblies of God wrestled with the influence of other theological positions, cultural implications and the practical needs of ministry work.
Talk to women who have answered God’s call to lead, and practice identification with them as you hear of both the blessings and the struggles of women pastors, missionaries and evangelists.
Teach on the doctrine of women’s leadership from the pulpit and in classes or small groups. As I stated earlier, I never once heard a sermon growing up that addressed whether I could or could not receive a call to ministry based on my gender. I just assumed I could because preachers talked about the calling of believers, regardless. One might think this is enough, but the Bible says we should always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15).
No one equipped me to speak of why I believed I could receive a call to pastoral ministry, or to refute those who disagreed with me. Teaching can be a powerful form of communication for both persuasion and reinforcing existing belief.
Personal experience with something or someone can go a long way toward changing attitudes. As pastors and church leaders, we should consider the language we use to talk about who we are and the roles we fill.
When talking generally about pastors, missionaries and other leaders, be thoughtful to use both male and female pronouns. Be intentional about using the title of pastor when speaking of pastoral staff who are women, in the same way you do for male members of your staff.
Research on women’s leadership roles reveals that women who are in leadership positions are more often referred to by their first names, which is familiar and casual. Their male counterparts are referred to by their titles and last names, which is more authoritative and formal. Talking about women as church leaders and showing them honor and respect helps reinforce that women are pastors, missionaries, district leaders and national officers.
We reinforce and strengthen attitudes about our doctrine on women’s leadership when we talk about women in the roles they play and the positions they have earned. We can also make a difference by encouraging women to seek licensure and ordination.
These credentials are the means by which we in the Assemblies of God endorse those who work in ministry. We don’t want women to pursue credentials just to boost our statistics, but rather so we can speak about those serving in our churches and parachurch ministries as fully endorsed by the Fellowship.
Over the course of our history in the Assemblies of God, we have done well to speak highly of those women who led the way in the Pentecostal movement. However, we can also be tempted to think of it as a golden age where all women operated in their gifts, and men and women always encouraged one another.
The reality of our history is much more nuanced and complex. For every story of women who led with esteem and valor, there are many other stories of frustration and disappointment.
If we want women to thrive in ministry, in spite of challenges that will come their way, we have to do more than just inspire and encourage women to lead. We need to confront rhetoric that is contradictory to our theology and doctrine.
Every year, those who hold credentials with the Assemblies of God sign paperwork stating they will uphold the doctrines of the Fellowship, namely the Assemblies of God 16 Fundamental Truths, and adhere to the Constitution and Bylaws. Any minister who is undecided about the role of women in ministry should consult with those in district and national leadership. We should always discourage teaching that opposes our governing documents and encourage further education in our theology and history.
There is room for ongoing discussion, but our actions should follow our talk. We need to put feet to our words and not just passively accept women’s leadership as a position in the Assemblies of God. Rather, it should be an action we carry out across all areas of leadership. We have seen the impacts of this action in the election of Melissa Alfaro as the first woman to hold an Executive Presbytery position not explicitly representing women and in the election of Donna Barrett to the position of general secretary.
Men and women throughout the Assemblies of God will speak about these offices differently because of the women who now occupy them. The intentional discussion on forming specific positions for women at the district and national level created the situation that allowed a woman like Beth Grant to serve as a national leader. How we talk about women creates space for women to serve as leaders in every office our bylaws allow.
Proclaiming the Message
How we talk about women matters to the gospel. As a young woman growing up in the Assemblies of God, it never occurred to me that I could not serve and lead in my Fellowship. One might argue that the lack of talk regarding women as leaders helped foster that understanding. However, when confronted with an opposing view, I lacked the resources I needed to answer effectively.
While no one discouraged me from seeking the call to ministry, I also lacked the encouragement to shape and form the possibility in others who did not grow up in the shadow of women like Blanche Britton.
Aristotle argued that rhetoric is both a moral and a practical art. How we talk about things has implications for how we believe and how we act. Our talk also has implications for how we shape and form belief and actions in others.
The founders of the Assemblies of God, men and women together, believed that there was a great urgency to the message of Christ’s salvation and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. There was no time to waste, as the consequences were eternal. They set out to embark on the greatest evangelism the world has ever known. We are the inheritors of that urgency, and we must carry on the task to engage this mission.
Our message is of the Savior, Spirit Baptizer and soon-coming King! He is worthy of a rhetoric that proclaims His call upon men and women to share this good news.
Women ministers will be the subjects of stories told for generations, should the Lord tarry, about the ways God used them to bring people from across the globe into the kingdom of God. This is good news indeed!